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Red Barrels and How They Show Game Design is Language

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So here’s a concept that I’ve been pondering for a while: game design is a form of language. “Language”, if we are to look at it in its loosest form, is a way of communicating ideas and thoughts through symbols, either visually or through audio. The earliest cave paintings were a way of communication and language just as the earliest attempts at spoken words.  How we consider words is its own area of study, and heck, texting is in its own way a language.

Going by that super loose definition, why can’t we view game design as its own language?

In many ways, language is an extended metaphor created by a consensus. A sound or a sight acts as a representation of something else. The word “apple” isn’t an apple, yet it means the fruit we know to be delicious and red (or a rainbow of other colors). “Apple”, however, doesn’t mean “Apple” in Spanish. It’s just a sound in the Spanish language that is meaningless. The symbol of sounds or images is highly dependent on its context.

In game design, then, a red barrel isn’t just a red barrel, but a metaphor for a mechanic or an action we have come to understand after many iterations and many years of consensus. Most gamers know that if you see a red barrel in a game, then interacting with it in specific ways (shooting, usually) means the barrel will explode. In some games, that means damage to your self and/or enemies. In other games it’s a way to open a new path determined by a crack in the wall. For videogames, visual cues tend to repeat, to make the game easier to learn.

Even further, we’ve come to understand certain button mappings as words and metaphors in the language. A pull of the right trigger (or ZR or R2 depending on the system) means “shoot the gun” in any FPS game, while pressing one of the L buttons usually means aim. Clicking L3 or R3 (or any of the other names for the command) often means “run” or “melee”. Left stick is always Z axis while right stick is always the X and Y axis.

That’s what I’d call a “primary mechanic”, or a basis for the language we understand. Left stick moves the character around and right stick moves the camera: that’s pretty much ubiquitous in any first person game and if that were to be flipped in a game, it would feel weird or unnatural. We wouldn’t understand it. Moving on to minor mechanics, we understand there will often be a button or a command for “jump”, or “use item”, or “change weapon”s, even if the exact button press won’t always be the same across systems. Just to add to the confusion of this concept, similar button presses can mean very different things depending on the genre or the individual games themselves. Again, it’s all a matter of context.

That dissimilarity in button presses for smaller mechanics (smaller meaning non-primary actions, such as jumping or crouching, for example) brings up another interesting thought on the matter. Is each game, or each console, creating its own dialect? Telling someone “Press A to jump” is going to mean something very different depending on what platform you’re playing on. We understand what its supposed to mean, but the learned finger placement is wrong between systems, and so a switch in thought must be made. For example, the X button is on the left within the button quadrant on the XBox 360 controller, but it’s down on the PS4’s button quadrant. One might, on reflex, press A or [square] if they weren’t being mindful.

Perhaps difficulties in learning a game, or switching between the button mappings on systems, isn’t just a learning curve, but is, in fact, a language barrier. When someone new to gaming can’t quite pick up a game, perhaps it’s not because they are having problems just with hand and finger placement, but perhaps it’s because they are learning a whole new language, and we, as experienced gamers, forget how much effort that had taken us in the beginning. The extended metaphors as mechanics like “this is cover” or “this is an enemy” or “he dies when you jump on his head unless he’s spiky” haven’t been learned or internalized the same way  their native language has. I can look at an apple and immediately call it an apple. I know its meaning, its context, and its uses. I can do the same when I look at a red barrel in games. Newcomers to games haven’t had the same experience built up over the years to understand the mechanic, or how the mechanics can be changed or twisted. My experiences with different forms of game design allow me to understand that different colored barrels in Borderlands correlated to different elements in the game. This isn’t some symbol everyone innately knows – it’s a learned pattern.

Keep in mind, a lot of what we understand isn’t necessarily “natural”. A red barrel doesn’t automatically mean explosions in real life, but we only understand what it means in games because it was a mechanic that was repeated, and through consensus game designers gave it meaning. The same can be said for “jump on enemies to kill them” as a mechanic. It was popularized in 2-d sidescrolling platformers like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic The Hedgehog, and it remains a popular mechanic in that genre today. Certain conventions have grown and continue from there that also aren’t immediately obvious, even in instructions. For example, I know that there is a mechanic in many games where jumping on an enemy to kill it also gives me a higher jump capability. Understanding the mechanic’s context and applications helps me understand that game and also gives me a frame of reference if it’s ever repeated in other games.

So why does this thought matter? Does it have any use other than for me to just get a prolonged thought out of my head? Well, maybe. Perhaps it’s a thought that can help us understand the difficulties newcomers are having to the medium, why this medium of entertainment might be a bit more exclusionary than we realize, and how to help newcomers understand games even better. Just as shouting “apple” at a non-English speaker isn’t going to help that person learn what an apple is, telling someone “move from cover point to cover point, then hit the weak spot to trigger levolution” isn’t going to explain to a new gamer what they are supposed to do. That context first has to be built up. Sometimes that means looking for games that can act as primers for the language. We need to consider games that  show what the apple or red barrel is and its context before shoving someone into a situation where that information is required to be processed quickly if they ever want to progress (Dark Souls, I’m looking at you). Perhaps game designers can do a better job of building up the language training in the game to be more newcomer-friendly while also not boring the ‘native language speakers’. There are mods that allow colorblind players to still appreciate color indicators, so why not have a mod that’s essentially “Game-Speak 101”?

That’s just a thought, though. What do you all think? Is game design its own language? Let us know in the comments!

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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